Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior review: 14 years on, Saif Ali Khan outshines Ajay Devgn again

Khan’s savage but brilliant act as Udaybhan is far more compelling than Devgn’s academic show as Tanhaji.  Sharad Kelkar enjoys his finest hour as Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj

Rating: 3.5 / 5

Ajay Devgn (l) and Saif Ali Khan in Tanhaji: The Unsing Warrior [2020]

By Mayur Lookhar

Period or contemporary, Indian cinema is increasingly telling tales that are ‘based on true stories’.  Fearing unnecessary litigation, even biopics and period films take the safer ‘based on true stories’ route.

T-Series, Ajay Devgn Films’ Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior [2020] is the latest period war film to play it safe.  Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior [2020] begins with a long disclaimer that this film is based on the heroics of Tanaji Malusare, the 17 century Maratha warrior.  The makers have consulted eminent historians, but they don’t claim 100 per cent accuracy, and so they have taken certain creative liberties.  The Hindi and Marathi disclaimer plays out a good five-ten seconds more than the English one.

Well, the makers have made that clear and so one can only be critical of the film if there is any blatant distortion of facts. What is fact though? History can be subjective. Director Om Raut, screenwriter Prakash Kapadia have consulted historians but they’ve also thanked descendants of Malusare in the opening credits. If the family hasn’t taken any objection to what’s been shown in the film, then perhaps, one shouldn’t be overtly critical of it.  And besides, Tanaji Malusare is one of those unsung heroes who’s only mentioned briefly in our history books in schools.  

One is curious about the spelling though as until this film arrived, the man’s name was spelt as Tanaji. We presume Tan-ha-ji is the Marathi pronunciation. Also, the legend about Malusare and his troops using the help of a ghorpad (monitor lizard) to climb the fort is not to be seen.  We do have mention of ghorpad bandhus [monitor handlers] but we don’t really see the famed lizard Yashwanti.

Raut’s film pays tribute to the heroics of Malusare [Ajay Devgn] who led the Maratha to victory against Udaybhan Rathod [Saif Ali Khan], the Mughal-appointed fort keeper of Kondana fort.  Post the triumph, the fort was renamed in honour of Malusare as Sinhagad.

Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior has its moments where it plays to the gallery, but Raut and screenwriter Kapadia have penned a largely engaging and highly entertaining screenplay. The left leaning critics will paint it as a saffronised masala entertainer, but they will forever ignore that this is a story in 1670 when there was no real concept of a secular nation. Hindustan (now India) was a land of princely states. Each king simply keen to extend its empire.

The Saffron colour is the symbol of Maratha pride, valour, and so it is all but natural for them to flaunt it. This was a time where social evils like Sati, child marriage was part of Hindu life. The makers have rightly issued in their disclaimer that the film in no way encourages child marriage. Swara Bhaskar took offence to the jauhar [self-immolation] in Padmaavat [2018], but thankfully no such reservations here. 

Given how fringe Rajput groups reacted to rumours around Padmaavat [2018] and created violence, yours truly feared whether the self-styled custodians of Rajput pride would object to a film that has a Rajput as the antagonist.   Luckily, there were none here.  Indian critics though need to rise above left, right ideologies, modern secular sensibilities and simply accept the life, traditions (good or bad) that existed in the particular period.

Given the extreme scrutiny, our filmmakers face a huge task in ensuring that such period epics don’t offend any community. Even our biopics tend to look like hagiographies.   Ashutosh Gowariker’s Panipat: The Betrayal [2019] was much appreciated for being a non-offensive film, but it lacked mass appeal. Raut and Kapadia take care in ensuring that the film doesn’t hurt any sentiments. The makers promoted it as a film that unites India.  Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior uses populist story tropes but it is not a mindless entertainer. 

All it takes to ensure your film is not against any community is involve members from that community in your fold. The happy Muslim clergy in Chhatrapati Shivaji’s kingdom, and the diminutive warrior with a skull cap in Tanhaji’s army allay any communal fears.

The concern though would have been over the portrayal of Udaybhan.  Mughal emperor Aurangzeb [Luke Kenny] played it smart to pit a Hindu [Udaybhan] against a Hindu [Shivaji], but Raut stays clears of even calling Udaybhan a Rajput. Perhaps, the lone mention in Udaybhan’s backstory is also beeped.  

History tells us that Udaybhan served Maharaja Jai Singh of Amer, who operated under the Mughal command.  Udaybhan serving the Mughals was natural but it is here that Raut perhaps has taken a creative liberty to paint just Udaybhan as the villain and not the entire Rajput clan. His backstory explains why he turned into a deserter.

Udaybhan is another variant of the scheming, psychotic, barbaric Alauddin Khilji that Ranveer Singh played so menacingly in Padmaavat [2018]. Khilji gorged on raw meat, while Udaybhan digs his teeth into a roast crocodile.   Singh moved from the sublime to ridiculous. Khan though looks more in control of his actions. He’s played the bad guy before in Ek Hasina Thi [2004] and Omkara [2006]. Udaybhan, though, is more sinister, a more brutal character than Langda Tyagi of Omkara. Khan eases into his character naturally. He revels into the madness of Udaybhan. Khan though is not consistent in his Rajasthani, Marwari accent. But Ranveer Singh didn’t even speak Persian as Alauddin Khilji in Padmaavat.  He may be the bad guy, but it is Udaybhan who captivates your imagination in Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior.

Ajay Devgn and Khan come together after 14 years. Much like Omkara, Devgn finds himself being out performed by Khan.  Now 50, Devgn lacks the agility of his hey days and that’s reflected in his combat scenes too. The stunt artiste though does his job well.  Ranveer Singh, a Sindhi, made a great effort to get the Marathi accent in Bajirao Mastani [2015].  Arjun Kapoor, a Punjabi, too made a decent effort as Sadashivrao Bhau in Panipat. Despite being a Mumbai-born Punjabi, Devgn doesn’t really have the Maratha accent to him.  The shadow of Ajay Devgn looms large over Tanhaji, thereby reducing it to a one-dimensional character. Honestly, this is an academic Ajay Devgn act.

Kajol, too, is Kajol-like in her brief role as Savitribai, [Tanhaji’s wife].  But there are other strong performances, led by Sharad Kelkar. Finally, Hindi cinema does justice to the physicality and talent of Sharad Kelkar. Remember, he was the voice of Prabhas in the dubbed Hindi version of Baahubali – The Beginning [2015] and Baahubali – The Conclusion [2017].   Kelkar comes out of Baahubali’s shadow to carve a new identity for himself.  He looks convincing as Shivaji and backs it up with an intense, riveting show.  Unheralded Marathi film actor Kailash Waghmare is amusing as the lowborn traitor who simply goes by the name [cuss word] Chutiya.  

Luke Kenny’s cameo as Aurangzeb is too little to judge. But it’s refreshing to see an Aurangzeb who sounds like a foreigner. 

Neha Sharma is pivotal to this story but we don’t get to see what happens to her character Kamal in the end. Similarly, what fate does the traitor Chandraji Pisal [Ajinkya Ramesh Deo] meet? That remains unanswered too.

Tanhaji score heavily on the technical front and its fine action choreography, especially the zipline stunts and the final battle. Rich in production design, the film does takes us back to the particular period. It has a strong visual appeal – courtesy Japanese import [cinematographer] Keiko Nakahara.  The film looks great in 3D, with visuals of flying arrows, spears, flames, moving you back in your chair.  The producer Ajay Devgn must be proud of the efforts of his VFX company – NY VFXWAALA.

You wish Devgn the actor would have put in a more compelling show in his 100 film, but Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior still pays a fitting tribute to the unsung Malusare.  The Maratha warrior hailed from the Koli community, who are likely to cheer their hero through this film. Indian cinema is no longer telling tales of just kings and queens.  While one would have loved to see more of Kelkar as Shivaji, but that wouldn’t have done justice to this Tanaji Malusare story.   The whistles in the theater from a largely Marathi crowd are enough to tell you that this is a paisa vasool [value for money] film.

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